Friday 31 January 2020

Cinema heaven and hell: "Talking About Trees"

We see more films about the sorry state of filmmaking in developing countries than we see films from developing countries, which may account for the sorry state. The immediate precedent for this week's Talking About Trees would be 2017's The Prince of Nothingwood, that quirky character study of a titan of the Afghan film business, unknown everywhere else. Suhaib Gasmelbari's new documentary, produced by the great Chadian director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun and bolstered by a crew uniting European and African technicians, introduces us to four greying lions of the Sudanese cinema, which enjoyed a brief flowering in the 1970s before its slow and steady decline: what happens when a country has minimal investment, scant stability and - as the opening navigation of a blackout underlines - only fitful electricity, that lifeblood of the audiovisual industry. Gasmelbari's interest lies in what these men are doing now, long after the last of them has shouted cut. An appearance on a radio arts forum offers some context for the gardening leave they find themselves on; otherwise, they're left to sweep their modest offices (no sprawling Bel Air mansions with adjacent swimming pools for these guys), revisit the sites of past glories, and make sporadic raids on the archives to see if any of their Seventies work has survived. At one point, we see one of the group cracking open a trunk containing VHS copies of both Truffaut's Le Peau Douce and the Matthew Broderick romcom The Night We Never Met: put it together with the later scene in which the local kids extol the virtues of Salman Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, and you're struck by the fact films have a funny, haphazard way of travelling. You never know what's going to show up where. Our heroes do, however, have a plan of sorts: to restore and reopen an abandoned cinema. If they can't make films, they can at least cultivate somewhere to show them. One reassuring constant of darkness: how it always allows for a possibility, slim as it may be, of light.

Gasmelbari's opening - the men filming one another, in the absence of resources to film anyone or anywhere else - looks a little stagy, forced as introductions can be, but Talking About Trees soon settles into an observational mode, quietly unfolding the logistics of this operation, and what cinema means to those carrying it out. These are citizens of the world, to borrow a phrase: cinephiles who studied in Germany and the USSR, where they were exposed to the kind of films they presumably wouldn't have seen back home, and then returned to Sudan to initiate a new wave that never quite came together. (Ripples of their directorial handiwork punctuate the film.) There's an obvious poignancy in seeing these now-sixtysomethings mulling over their youthful ambitions, and yet the main thrust of the cinema restoration is positive, forward-looking: they're putting down roots, building something, leaving a concrete legacy behind. Gasmelbari has a gift for resonant framing, alighting upon his subjects as they wait around outside a cinema that is so much bigger than them, and then in backrooms littered with tossed reels of celluloid. (Preservationists will either jump for joy or weep tears at the waste.) His own footage sometimes seems as quotidian as a morning makeover show, documenting meetings with businessmen and calls being put in to hire firms; we're never allowed to lose track of the fact it takes money to turn your dreams into reality. Elsewhere, though, he lends a poetry and magic to what's effectively the filming of a small community project. Talking About Trees is a useful reminder that, even empty, the cinema is a great location, full of ghosts and spectres - half-glimpsed shimmers - but also anticipation and transformational promise. That's why the guys name their cinema The Revolution; it may also be why what happens in the film's final third happens in the final third. No spoilers, but safe to say this was not the Cinema Paradiso ending anyone - not the film's subjects, not its maker, nor perhaps the audience - might have expected. That's how the world turns sometimes, though, and if it doesn't jolt Western viewers - sat in a cosy seat in one of several air-conditioned screens, with a choice of flavoured kettle chips within easy reach - into some awareness of their very considerable privilege, I suspect that nothing will.

Talking About Trees opens in selected cinemas from today.

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